Underground Scholars Initiative celebrates 2nd graduating class

Daniel Kim/Senior Staff

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Francis, or “Frankie,” Guzman, a 2007 UC Berkeley graduate, returned to his alma mater Sunday afternoon to address the second graduating class of the Underground Scholars Initiative, or USI, a pioneering program unique to UC Berkeley that connects campus resources to formerly incarcerated students and students with formerly incarcerated family members.

Guzman, who went behind bars at 15 years old, recounted a childhood in which police presence was to be expected, a sentiment reiterated by several other underground scholars.

“Close your eyes and imagine a world without prison,” said Adrian Chavez, a USI social welfare and public policy graduate.

The ceremony, held in Anna Head Alumnae Hall, gave each graduate a chance to address the audience and was attended by family, friends and community leaders alike — among them former campus chancellor and USI advisory board member Robert Birgeneau, city of Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín and California State Sen. Nancy Skinner.

Skinner noted the passage of state Proposition 36 in 2012, which diluted California’s “three strikes” law for nonviolent offenders, and Proposition 57 in 2016, which increased parole chances for nonviolent offenders, as markers of progress in dismantling the prison industrial complex, but she added that significant strides still need to be made.

“We’re trying to correct misguided attitudes in California and across the country that somehow our past actions are the predictor of your entire futures,” Skinner said to those gathered. “We all have flaws, that is the nature of being human — flawed. Once California closes a prison, then we know we’ve really made progress.”

USI, which started as a campus community, gained campus office space in 2014 and began to receive state funding last year, according to Robert DeMarco, a USI graduate receiving a bachelor of arts in sociology.

Support for the initiative has grown in recent years on and off campus, according to USI’s first full-time program Executive Director Violeta Alvarez.

USI is now a part of UC Berkeley’s Centers for Educational Equity and Excellence, or CE3, which works to empower and ensure that “non-traditional students excel at the top public University in the world,” according to USI’s website. Alvarez says she hopes USI can begin to receive money directly from the campus.

This year USI helped 26 students submit applications to UC Berkeley, 13 were accepted, and they are looking to expand the applicant pool to 50 next year, according Alvarez. 

Jorge David Mancillas, a USI sociology major graduating with high honors, is set to begin a doctoral program in sociology at UCLA this fall. In his remarks, Mancillas explained a recent incident — during increased police presence on campus in response to Ann Coulter’s scheduled appearance, Mancillas was arrested and held at Santa Rita Jail. Mancillas said that the arrest “felt like I was forgotten, buried alive.”

Mancillas then spoke to the response of the USI community, who started a “FreeJD” hashtag after his arrest.

“I just started crying —  (USI) is this support system that I didn’t realize was so valuable,” Mancillas said.

Audrey McNamara is the executive news editor. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @McNamaraAud.

A previous version of this article may have implied that USI submits applications for students, when it only helps in the application process.